President Jacob Zuma responds to questions on his budget in Parliament on Wednesday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
President Jacob Zuma responds to questions on his budget in Parliament. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s remarkable recent threat, that he would consider "relooking" at apartheid uses of force to quell university unrest unless students started to behave, marks his latest allusion to SA’s dark past.

He enjoys an ambiguous relationship with apartheid, does the president. Very often it is a convenient scapegoat for contemporary woes; other times, he seems to suggest, there were aspects to it worth reviving.

It is symptomatic of his pragmatic approach to politics, where no idea or position is ever completely off the table in principled terms. Everything, even SA’s greatest evil, has its uses, depending on circumstances.

Addressing students at the Tshwane University of Technology south campus in June and in talking to the violent nature of student protests, Mr Zuma warned: "Do not use violence to express yourselves or I might be forced to relook at the apartheid laws that used violence to suppress people."

Mr Zuma can be ominous indeed. And he can get away with rhetorical murder. Just imagine for a moment former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille had said something similar. It would herald overnight the end of her career.

It is an entirely inconsistent and contradictory sentiment too, for Mr Zuma has used the brutal violence of the apartheid state to explain away, among other things, both xenophobia and crime.

"Apartheid was a very violent system," he said in April. "So our people had to be violent as well to overthrow it. But the mistake we made was not to teach them that apartheid was now over and there was no need to be violent."

Well, unless you are president it seems, because then the threat of apartheid-style force is entirely legitimate.

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SERVICE delivery riots, too, are not the consequence of government’s failure, rather apartheid. "I don’t think as a nation we just became violent overnight. Violence is a direct consequence of apartheid. Apartheid was a very violent system. So violent that even if you peacefully demonstrated, they would shoot at you and kill you," Mr Zuma told a The New Age breakfast in November 2013.

But, ironically, when the state does actually mirror apartheid-style violence, most recently at Marikana, Mr Zuma is the first to assure the public that there it is an entirely illegitimate comparison

"Wherever (the Farlam commission of inquiry) will point, we must know what happened. There was nothing of that nature during apartheid ... if anything, there would have been a huge cover-up during apartheid times," he said to the House of Traditional Leaders in November 2012.

"SA is a democratic country, not an apartheid country, and one incident cannot mean our system is a system that is killing people."

There might not be a cover-up, but if it’s accountability you want, there is precious little of that on show and that is certainly something the apartheid regime specialised in.

Apartheid can be an excuse or a threat, even an explanation. But only Mr Zuma and his party can draw those parallels; should anyone else attempt it, it is entirely without merit.

Mr Zuma took his already notorious reputation for evading responsibility to new heights in 2012, when he blamed the failure of the Limpopo education department to deliver textbooks on apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd. "What is happening today is what Verwoerd did, where the black majority were historically not given education. We are dealing with a system that had put black people back for centuries," he said back then.

That prompted a national debate about whether or not apartheid could be blamed for current affairs. Those stalwarts alienated from the African National Congress (ANC), like Trevor Manuel, didn’t mince their words.

"We (government) should no longer say it’s apartheid’s fault," Mr Manuel told reporters in April 2013. "We should get up every morning and recognise we have responsibility. There is no longer the Botha regime looking over our shoulder; we are responsible ourselves."

But Mr Zuma was never going to agree with that. Were he to do so, the ultimate technique to evade personal responsibility would be stripped from him. His response: "To suggest we cannot blame apartheid for what is happening in our country now I think is a mistake, to say the least."

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BUT under Mr Zuma the ANC seems to have time for some of Mr Verwoerd’s policies. In November 2013 Enoch Godongwana, the ANC’s transformation chairman, said: "Verwoerd used the quota system, therefore we should too! We unashamedly say we will use quotas."

So even Mr Verwoerd and his policies appear not to have been all bad. Can you blame Mr Verwoerd for the ANC’s use of quotas? Or do we celebrate the fact? Now there is a philosophical question for the ages.

The list of things Mr Zuma has blamed apartheid for is extensive. Eskom, for one, is in a state of nuclear meltdown not because it has been systematically neglected for 20 years and administered like club for the managerially incompetent but because of apartheid.

"The problem (is) the energy was structured racially to serve a particular race, not the majority," Mr Zuma told an audience in December 2014. In January 2015 he would repeat the suggestion: "There’s a belief out there that the electricity challenge is a result of the failure of government of lack of leadership. The economy of apartheid was racially skewed and structured to take care of the minority, not the majority of the country."

So even poor leadership and Eskom, which has just made its way though yet another chief operations officer, cannot be blamed for poor management; it is a problem decades old, the president seems to be saying.

Moral decay, too, is a result of apartheid. Even the chaotic nature of Parliament, at the centre of which sits Mr Zuma himself, can be laid at apartheid’s doorstep: "That is a glaring example of the nature of apartheid culture of violence that is left with us. It’s not just with ordinary people, it’s even in Parliament. We need to be cured. We’re sick."

Of evading questions and appearances in equal measure, that, presumably, is not the issue at all; certainly not Parliament calling in the police. No, that’s the kind of thing that would have been frowned on under apartheid.

And of course there is its use to denigrate enemies, of which the DA is the primary target. Day in and day out the ANC suggest the DA is a party defined by apartheid mentality, hankering after the good old bad days. So it can be nothing more than a cheap, baseless slur, too.

The reasonable position on all of this is as obvious as it is unhelpful – of course apartheid’s legacy has left on the country a massive and enduring scar. But that says nothing about contemporary standards and values in government, responsibility for the job at hand and accountability when government falls short of the asking price.

It’s an old game Mr Zuma plays – elevating one legitimate truth above another far more immediate and pressing problem. But you have to admire the sheer bravado with which he does so.

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APARTHEID is for Jacob Zuma the ultimate rhetorical device. It can be used to explain just as easily as it can evade. It can be used to threaten, even to justify contemporary policy. And, of course, it is an insult, thrown around with abandon but never evidenced, to malign and denigrate enemies. Ultimately, it can be used to deny any comparison in the first place – to separate the ANC from the very thing it was dedicated to destroying, even when hard evidence itself suggests a perfectly fair parallel in one area or another.

It is sad indeed that something so serious is so abused by the president. It is to cheapen a grand human tragedy and reduce serious analysis and understanding to nothing more than school-ground innuendo. It’s pathetic, is what it is.